This year will be a year of transition in Orange County, as longtime county manager Bonnie Hammersley heads into retirement after 10 years on the job – the culmination of a career in public service that has spanned more than three decades.

One of Hammersley’s final big tasks is a tough one: the preparation of a budget for next year, in an environment where nearly every town and county government in the Triangle is facing the prospect of a property tax increase. Orange County is no exception: Hammersley’s budget proposal calls for a tax increase of about 3 cents, to pay for staff raises and higher public school spending at a time when sales tax revenue is lower than anticipated.

Bonnie Hammersley recently spoke with 97.9 The Hill’s Aaron Keck about the budget and her impending retirement.

Click here to listen to their conversation. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Keck: You’ve been here for ten years, (and) you’ve had a lot of achievements. What are you proudest of?

Bonnie Hammersley: When I came in, I had some really long-term projects. There was a 100-year-old jail that needed replacement. There was (the Southern Branch) library, that had been contemplated for about 25 years. We’ve completed those – and we’ve actually made some movement on the Greene Tract. But one of the biggest accomplishments for me is working with the Orange County team. I’ve got some really fantastic public servants and they’re dedicated to the residents of Orange County … and I think continuing (our) philosophy of looking outward, and taking care of the residents, has really been an accomplishment.

Keck: When’s your last day?

Hammersley: My last day is July 31 – that’s like a state legal day. But my (actual) last day in the office is July 17.

Keck: Do you have plans for that last day?

Hammersley: No, I just want to kind of ride off into the sunset. I don’t want a lot of hoopla. Just, you know, wave goodbye and carry on.

Keck: One of your last big to-do items, of course, is the budget for next year. What are some of the details that folks should know?

Hammersley: So I’m required by state law to recommend a balanced budget, (and) I did that … (but it) was a really tough budget. We’ve seen revenue decline significantly. Last year we had a growth of $8.1 million in projected sales tax revenue; this year we’re projecting $1.6 million. That’s significant.

This budget will cover a 5 percent increase in education. There will be compensation for employees, (but) no net new positions in county government. We’re in the midst of a global labor shortage, we’re trying to retain employees, so it does include a 4 percent compensation (increase) for employees. And then unfortunately this year I did have to recommend a tax rate increase, to cover the loss of revenue in sales tax – (plus) we’ve lost some money from the state in the Medicaid swap that they did a number of years ago. And because Medicaid expenses are going up, and sales tax (revenue) is going down, that reduces the amount that the state normally gives to us. So it’s a tough budget. My goal is always to present a budget to the board that they can live with and feel comfortable with – but it’s always tough when there’s a tax rate impact for residents.

Click here to read Hammersley’s full budget proposal and view her presentation to county commissioners.

Keck: What do we know about the lower sales tax revenue increase?

Hammersley: We don’t know a lot. I’ve been working in government for 36 years. It’s difficult to trend. We do (usually) see consumer confidence go down during an election year – however, this is a significant loss. I also believe we’re at pre-pandemic increases: the state of North Carolina is looking at a 2 percent (revenue) increase. Orange County always does better than the state, so I’m predicting a 3 to 4 percent increase. The federal government put a lot of money out during the pandemic, and I think that money was spent, and so we saw an increase in sales tax.

Keck: I was going to ask if it was more to do with the fact that there was a spike (in revenue) a couple years ago.

Hammersley: It could. But it flattened much quicker or more dramatically (than expected).

Keck: I did have the nerdiest question in the world: about 45 percent of this year’s budget goes to schools, and I remember county commissioners talking about it being (a rule) that 48 percent of funds would go to schools. It’s not a huge difference, but that’s a difference.

Hammersley: It’s a target, and every year we try to meet that target – (but) it’s not a hard and fast rule, and it fluctuates year after year. (Recently) the board has appropriated funds in capital, (but) that capital money is not being spent as we anticipated. So the debt service is not as high as it would be, because there’s money sitting on the table that’s not being spent right now. If it were being spent, we would be hitting that 48.1 percent. (And) as most people know, we’re going out for a school bond in the fall. Once that bond is approved and we go forward, we will be surpassing 48.1 (percent) in future years.

Keck: Back to the fact that you’re heading into retirement in a couple of months: obviously you’ve accomplished a lot in 10 years, but there’s always more to do. What do you envision for Orange County’s future?

Hammersley: Orange County’s in a really good place right now. We just completed the countywide strategic plan, the Climate Action Plan. We’re in the process of completing a land use comprehensive plan. So there’s a lot of plans that are going to guide us going forward, and I see them succeeding well beyond my years. And Orange County is a great place to be. does not charge subscription fees, and you can directly support our efforts in local journalism here. Want more of what you see on Chapelboro? Let us bring free local news and community information to you by signing up for our newsletter.